Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tax Audits on Canadian Charities Criticized   

Politics

Dean Beeby, reporting for The Canadian Press, as published by The Huffington Post:

The Conservative government has stepped up its scrutiny of the political activities of charities, adding fresh money for more audits, and casting its net well beyond the environmental groups that have opposed its energy policies.

Canada Revenue Agency, ordered in 2012 to audit political activities as a special project, now has also targeted charities focused on foreign aid, human rights, and even poverty.

The tax agency has also been given a bigger budget — $5 million more through to 2017 — and is making the special project a permanent part of its work.

With 52 political-activity audits currently underway, some stretching out two years and longer, charities say they’ve been left in limbo, nervous about speaking out on any issue lest they provoke a negative ruling from the taxman.

And their legal bills are rising rapidly — in some cases adding $100,000 to already strained budgets — as they try to navigate often-complex demands from CRA auditors.

At best this represents an onerous burden on charitable organizations to ensure rules are being followed; at worst it is a complete waste of public funds for political gain.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Q&A with the creator of ‘House of Cards’   

Television

Laura Prudom, interviewing ‘House of Cards’ creator Beau Willimon for Variety:

When you were first writing and pitching “House of Cards,” did you have any concept of the magic you were making?

Willimon: No idea. Very early on, it was really just four people: It was Fincher and then his two producing partners, Eric Roth, legendary screenwriter, and Josh Donen, who’s his business partner and accomplished producer, and me. The fact that we had Fincher onboard and he was the person masterminding all this in the beginning, I knew that we were going to put a pretty good foot forward no matter what. Shortly thereafter, Kevin and Robin came onboard. So we had the recipe to do something really fantastic. Honestly, you never know whether anything you’re going to make is going to connect with people. We worked for almost a year on the first episode, got it to where we wanted it to be and went out to find a home and Netflix made an offer we couldn’t refuse and blew everyone out of the water. We were all excited about this possible programmatic shift. None of us had really done television before and neither had Netflix. So we were all in the same boat of experimentation, trying something different. We didn’t know what the rules were, so we were completely ready to break them.

There was a lot of attention toward the show early on just because of the new model. So we definitely benefitted from that. We knew a lot of people were going to be interested. We were proud of the work that we had done; we thought it was good, but you never know until you know. As high as our expectations were, I don’t think any of us were prepared for the huge response that we got, which only motivated us to make it even better.

It’s fascinating to learn more about how ‘House of Cards’ – the show that solidified Netflix as a television powerhouse – came to be.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Le Grand Feu – A Fireworks Extravaganza in Paris

Travel

Last year, while planning a vacation to London and Paris, we came across an interesting event called Le Grand Feu. It’s an annual fireworks display – apparently the largest in Europe – that takes place each September in a beautiful park on the western outskirts of Paris.

Le Grand Feu 1

Although there was very little information about the event online – and what little information we could find was all in French – Le Grand Feu was a wonderful experience and well worth the hassles of figuring out how to order tickets and how to get to the park by Métro. Best of all, given its low profile amoung non-Parisians, the event felt more authentic than some of the tourist traps we visited. It was fun and refreshing to be surrounded by locals.

Unlike most of the fireworks displays I’ve seen, Le Grand Feu was presented as a series of scenes, each artfully choreographed to a different piece of music. I was impressed not just by the variety of scenes, but also by the depth and layering of light the producers were able to create. I got a sense that they were focused on creativity and artistry rather than the all out ‘shock and awe’ I’ve come to expect from North American fireworks displays. That said, the grand finale certainly rivalled any other show I’ve seen in terms of intensity – in fact, it was so bright at times that I could barely keep my eyes open!

If you happen to be in or near Paris in September, it is definitely worth attending this unique event. Take a look at some of the videos to get a feel for show, but keep in mind that they don’t really do it justice.

If you’re interested in attending the show, below you’ll find information and tips based on my experience:

Tickets and Seating

The event is held in a large public park but the area is completely fenced off so you’ll require a ticket to get in. As it generally sells out in advance, I recommend ordering tickets online. There are several different seating options, from lower cost general admission space on the grass (i.e. no actual seats), to medium cost chair seating, to higher cost elevated bleacher seating. We opted for the medium-priced chair seating, identified as section T and S on the below image.

Le Grand Feu seating chart

These seats were good, although I would recommend sitting further back if possible. Sections V and U on the seating chart are actually less expensive but I think they are more desirable for two reasons:

  1. The fireworks are launched relatively close to the seating area, so the closer you are to the front, the more likely you are to get covered in ash during the performance. This is probably highly dependent on the direction of the wind during the performance, but we had a significant dusting of ash in our hair by the end of the show and at one point I had to deal with a tiny piece of debris in my eye.
  2. Since fireworks are fired into the sky, the closer you sit to the front, the more you’ll have to crane your neck to see everything. Sitting further back would reduce your neck strain and provide a wider viewing angle to take everything in since the fireworks launch from all over the park, not just from a central location.

Tickets range from €30 to €80 and can be purchased online through FNAC, the French equivalent of Best Buy with a ticketing subsidiary similar to Ticketmaster. We ordered tickets online and opted to pick them up at one of FNAC’s retail stores – in our case the Champs-Elysée location. Just remember to bring the credit card you used when ordering tickets with you as you’ll need to present the card in order to pick up your tickets.

Getting There

Le Grand Feu takes place in the Parc de Saint-Cloud on the outskirts of Paris. Given the number of people attending the event, we took public transit from our apartment in the 6th arrondissement. If I remember correctly, it took just over an hour to arrive, including a 10-15 minute walk from the Boulogne – Pont de Saint-Cloud Métro station to the park entrance.

There were lots of people heading to the event at the same time as us, so it would have been pretty hard to get lost – we just followed the crowd. Keep in mind that there are two entrances to the park and depending which section your seats are in you’ll need to enter from one side or the other.

I recommend arriving at least 30-45 minutes early as there are a few bottlenecks in the admission process. We arrived with plenty of time to spare, but there were many others filtering into the park after the start of the show.

Amenities

As the event takes place in a park, there are fewer amenities than you might expect. There were several food trucks and a spattering of portable toilets, but not really enough to satisfy the crowd of 20,000+ visitors. We brought a backpack full of drinks and snacks, so I can’t really speak to the length of the food truck lines or the quality of the food. If you need to pee, do so well before the show starts as the lines were very long just prior to showtime. On the plus side, the portable toilets seemed pretty clean!

This is an outdoor event, so be prepared for the weather. I recommend bringing warm clothes and a few blankets as the temperature definitely dropped toward the end of the performance.

If you’ll be lucky enough to be near Paris on September 13, 2014 then why not treat yourself to a great fireworks show? Visit the official Le Grand Feu website for additional information, although you might have to brush up on your French to understand it!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

‘This American Life’ leaves PRI   

Radio

Cara Buckley, reporting for The New York Times:

On July 1, “This American Life” became independent, leaving its distributor of 17 years, Public Radio International, or PRI.

[...]

But the big impact is financial. Gone are a distributor’s financial guarantees, which in the case of “This American Life,” reached seven figures. Instead, Mr. Glass will now be responsible for the show’s marketing and distribution, as well as for finding corporate sponsors. It’s the equivalent of Radiohead’s releasing its own album “In Rainbows,” or Louis C. K.’s selling his own stand-up special — except all the time, for every show.

It will be strange listening to this podcast without the familiar “PRI, Public Radio International” voice-over at the end.

(Via Marco.org)

UPDATE

Additional information on the show’s new radio distribution partner was posted by Ira Glass to the This American Life blog:

The company that’s going to deliver the audio files of our show to stations, PRX, has this website (prx.org, duh) where anyone can post a story or a full series and try to get radio stations to run it. What they’re about is the democratization of public radio. Making it easy for you or any newcomer to get their work into the hands of program directors. I admire that.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Apple ‘Pride’   

AppleVideo

Apple:

On June 29, thousands of Apple employees and their families marched in the San Francisco Pride Parade. They came from around the world — from cities as far as Munich, Paris, and Hong Kong — to celebrate Apple’s unwavering commitment to equality and diversity. Because we believe that inclusion inspires innovation.

Beautiful video. It would be great if Apple expanded this to all the cities where they have a retail presence.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Delete2Archive for OS X 10.9.4

Apple

Earlier today, Apple released OS X 10.9.4, the fourth update to Mavericks.

As was done for prior versions of the operating system, I’ve released a new version of Delete2Archive that is compatible with the latest update. Follow the installation instructions and download the new version of the plugin from the Delete2Archive page.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Apple stops development of Aperture   

ApplePhotography

Jim Dalrymple, reporting for The Loop:

Apple introduced a new Photos app during its Worldwide Developers Conference that will become the new platform for the company. As part of the transition, Apple told me today that they will no longer be developing its professional photography application, Aperture.

“With the introduction of the new Photos app and iCloud Photo Library, enabling you to safely store all of your photos in iCloud and access them from anywhere, there will be no new development of Aperture,” said Apple in a statement provided to The Loop. “When Photos for OS X ships next year, users will be able to migrate their existing Aperture libraries to Photos for OS X.”

Sad news. I’ve been using Aperture since 2009.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why Aereo’s Loss Hurts the TV Industrial Complex in the Long Run   

Television

Peter Kafka, writing for Re/code:

Now we’re back to a world where the only incentive the TV guys have to move faster is the nagging fear that their growth has permanently stalled, and that their subscription rolls will decline as new generations of video-watchers enter a world where paying for TV seems ridiculous.

That group of “cord-nevers” hasn’t grown big enough to show up on the TV Industrial Complex’s books yet. But it’s hard to imagine it won’t get there. Any sane TV executive knows that, and is also betting that it won’t show up for years to come, when it will be someone else’s problem.

If Aereo were around to make them move faster, it could be better for them — and their customers — in the long run. But they’ll be sticking with lucrative business as usual for now. Pretty sure we’ve seen this show before.

A more comprehensive version of the argument I was making yesterday.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The US Supreme Court says Aereo is illegal   

TechnologyTelevision

Zachary M. Seward, reporting for Quartz:

The US Supreme Court ruled that Aereo violates copyright law by transmitting broadcast television over the internet, siding with America’s largest media companies in a case that will shape the future of TV.

A disappointing verdict, especially given Aereo’s prior successes in lower courts. Media companies may be successful in the short term with legal challenges like this that thwart the technological innovation of competitors, but in the long run they either embrace change or risk becoming irrelevant.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Who really benefits from Canada’s tax giveaways?   

Politics

Kayle Hatt, writing for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives ‘Behind the Numbers’ blog:

On Tuesday, the Parliamentary Budget Office released their long awaited costing and distributional analysis of the tax measures implemented since the Harper government has been in power. In essence, they asked what is the cost of these tax cuts, who benefits, and to what degree.

The total cost of the tax cuts implemented by this government is $30.4 Billion in 2014 ($17.1B on the income tax side and $13.3B from the GST/HST cuts). This is in addition to the cuts to the federal corporate income tax, which the PBO report did not look at but Jim Stanford has estimated to cost around $13 billion in annual revenue.

For comparison, reducing post-secondary tuition fees to 1992 levels (as proposed by this year’s Alternative Federal Budget) would cost $2.8 billion and eliminating all university fees in Canada would cost $5.9 billion a year. Or for less than the tax cuts, we could implement a national pharmacare program and a national affordable childcare program, which would cost $4.5 billion and $6 billion respectively once fully implemented, as proposed by the CCPA.

I can’t say that I’ve noticed a dramatic impact to my after-tax income as a result of the Harper government’s tax cuts. I think the money could have been better used on new programs and services.

How the Father of Claymation Lost His Company   

FinanceMoviesTelevision

Zachary Crockett, writing for Priceonomics:

On a rainy autumn afternoon in 2002, Will Vinton sat alone in a board room, reviewing his severance package.

His desk, now barren, had once displayed the emblems of a storied career: an Oscar, six prime-time Emmys, a slew of Clios and innumerable other honors. He had brought clay animation back to life. But his creations, once animated on silver screens, were now housed in cardboard boxes, frozen in various states of bewilderment.

Over thirty years, Vinton had built his firm, Vinton Studios, into a $28-million-a-year enterprise. He’d produced, directed, and brought to life the most memorable characters of the 80s and 90s — the California Raisin, Thurgood Stubbs, the “Red and Yellow M&Ms.” He not only coined the term “claymation,” but was its unheralded king.

And now he was in the board room, tracing over the language that seized his kingdom. Hours earlier, he’d handed over his company and all of its trademarks to Nike co-founder Phil Knight. The billionaire’s son, an animation intern and ex-rapper with no management experience, would be assuming his place.

(Via The Verge)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Suncor Energy recycles toxic oil-sands runoff   

Technology

Philippe de Montigny, writing for the Financial Post:

In what is seen as an industry first, Suncor Energy Inc. is recycling tailings water from surface mining at its oil sands plant to feed its nearby in situ operations in northern Alberta.

[...]

Tailings ponds are currently used across the industry to dump leftover water, clay, sand, toxins and residual bitumen after oil sands processing. The water in these ponds contains toxic chemicals that endanger fish, birds and the surrounding ecosystem. The Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development reports that tailings ponds span more than 176 square kilometres, an area the size of the city of Vancouver.

Regardless of your opinion of Alberta’s energy industry, initiatives like this should be applauded. Short of shutting down oil sand development altogether – something that is highly unrealistic from both a political and economic perspective – reducing the environmental impact of existing and future projects is a feasible alternative.

While there is much that can and should be improved, this announcement highlights that the industry is not completely resistant to change.

Despite tripling production, Suncor halved its gross water withdrawal from the [Athabasca] river since 2004, with current withdrawals below 1998 levels. When its new wastewater treatment plant starts up this quarter, the company expects to see a 65% decrease in fresh water usage compared to 2007.

An impressive and encouraging statistic. What other industry has increased their efficiency by 600% over the past decade?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Advocating Pill, U.S. Signals Shift to Prevent AIDS   

Health

Donald McNeil Jr., writing for The New York Times:

Federal health officials recommended Wednesday that hundreds of thousands of Americans at risk for AIDS take a daily pill that has been shown to prevent infection with the virus that causes it.

If broadly followed, the advice could transform AIDS prevention in the United States — from reliance on condoms, which are effective but unpopular with many men, to a regimen that relies on an antiretroviral drug.

It would mean a 50-fold increase in the number of prescriptions for the drug, Truvada — to 500,000 a year from fewer than 10,000. The drug costs $13,000 a year, and most insurers already cover it.

[...]

Since 2010, three separate studies using Truvada have shown that when taken daily it can vastly reduce the chances of infection. That held true for gay men, heterosexual couples and drug injectors. In the study of gay men, known as iPrEx, men whose blood tests showed they had taken their pill every day were 99 percent protected.

Despite decades of condom-use promotion, the number of new H.I.V. infections in the United States remains relatively stable. I’m somewhat skeptical that at-risk populations will be any more likely to take daily pills than wear condoms, but given the discouraging new infection statistics, it’s pretty clear that new strategies are worth a try.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Fighting for identity   

Reading

The Economist:

In her parents’ bare brick-built shack in southern Beijing, Li Xue sifts through piles of court verdicts, petitions and other papers that record her family’s struggle for most of the 20 years of her life to secure a simple document: a household registration certificate, the basic building block of official identity in China. Because she was born in violation of China’s one-child-per-couple policy, local officials will not give her one. As a result she could not go to school. She now cannot get a job, nor get married, nor even buy a train or plane ticket.

It seems very unjust to punish a child for something they had no control over.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

America dumbs down   

OpinionScience

Jonathon Gatehouse, writing for Maclean’s on a wave of anti-science, anti-intellectual thinking in the United States:

If the rise in uninformed opinion was limited to impenetrable subjects that would be one thing, but the scourge seems to be spreading. Everywhere you look these days, America is in a rush to embrace the stupid. Hell-bent on a path that’s not just irrational, but often self-destructive. Common-sense solutions to pressing problems are eschewed in favour of bumper-sticker simplicities and blind faith.

[...]

The digital revolution, which has brought boundless access to information and entertainment choices, has somehow only enhanced the lowest common denominators—LOL cat videos and the Kardashians. Instead of educating themselves via the Internet, most people simply use it to validate what they already suspect, wish or believe to be true. It creates an online environment where Jenny McCarthy, a former Playboy model with a high school education, can become a worldwide leader of the anti-vaccination movement, naysaying the advice of medical professionals.

A must read, even if it is somewhat unfair to single-out the United States. There are many examples of uneducated, irrational thinking outside of the United States as well.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Great Smartphone War   

Apple

Kurt Eichenwald, writing for Vanity Fair:

Across Samsung, the message was heard: the company needed to come out with its own “iPhone”—something beautiful and easy to use with just that dollop of “cool”—and fast. Emergency teams were thrown together, and for three months designers and engineers worked under enormous pressure. For some employees, the work was so demanding they got only two to three hours of sleep a night.

By March 2, the company’s Product Engineering Team had completed a feature-by-feature analysis of the iPhone, comparing it to the Samsung smartphone under construction. The group assembled a 132-page report for their bosses, explaining in detail every way the Samsung phone fell short. A total of 126 instances were found where the Apple phone was better.

There is using someone’s prior work for inspiration and then there is outright copying; and then there is forming emergency teams that work for months with little sleep to analyze every aspect of a competitor’s product, detailing their findings in 132-page reports.

I was familiar with the allegations that Samsung copied Apple’s products, but until reading this article I was unaware of the scope of their questionable business practices: copying competitors’ products, patent infringement, counter-suing, illegal price fixing, allegations of bribery, money laundering, evidence tampering, and theft.

(Via The Loop)

Friday, June 6, 2014

Quebec to adopt right-to-die legislation   

HealthPolitics

Rhéal Séguin, reporting in The Globe and Mail:

In a historic vote in the National Assembly, Quebec has become the first province to legalize doctor-assisted death as part of comprehensive end-of-life legislation.

Bill 52, An Act respecting end-of-life care, received broad support on Thursday from nearly 80 per cent of MNAs.

[...]

Quebec’s vote came after more than four years of often heart-wrenching deliberations – a process [Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette] thinks the rest of the country will soon undertake.

A significant step forward for Quebec and a discussion the rest of Canada needs to undertake.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

It’s time for the U.S. to use the metric system   

OpinionPoliticsScience

Susannah Locke, writing for Vox:

The metric system is far superior to the bizarre system of feet, miles, pounds, and gallons used in the United States.

I couldn’t agree more.

The whole rest of the world seems to get this. So why aren’t we doing it, too?

Good question. Read the article for history and compelling arguments for why the United States should embrace the metric system.